Manufacturing Careers, Decline or Growth?

I had a conversation with a Manchester stock broker the other day who was bullish on the future of U.S. manufacturing. Parenthetically, this claim and others he made reminded me of two things about stock brokers, one is by design they have an eye to the future and two they are capable of disrupting conventional wisdom with their insights.

So what are we to believe about the current state and future of manufacturing careers in the U.S.? Recent history and economic news has shown a declining trend for manufacturing jobs for some time now. A combination of developing nations exercising their newly found means of competing with advanced economies and the Great Recession with its sharp decline in manufacturing employment leaves many thinking that work in the manufacturing sector has been left behind in the 20th century.

To see why let’s look at the reasons manufacturing declined in the U.S. in the first place. The two most obvious factors were the relatively high costs for energy and labor that were determined to be less burdensome for employers overseas. Other factors contributed in my view, such as weaker or nonexistent unions and less stringent environmental laws as well. For the past few decades the practice of offshoring manufacturing jobs has been seen as a benefit for owners and stockholders of U.S. manufacturing facilities and a commonplace practice.

However it may be premature to call U.S. manufacturing finished even though many of these same conditions still exist. So where is the optimism for U.S. manufacturing? It comes from a confluence of emerging factors that over time may mean a possible manufacturing resurgence. For example we’re seeing lower energy costs domestically thanks largely to more natural gas; logistical costs involved in procuring raw materials and shipping finished goods are increasingly onerous; it turns out the quality of many products made abroad are not consistently high; international labor costs can change abruptly and sometimes considerably; manufacturing is becoming more sophisticated requiring a more educated workforce; and we’re experiencing growth of a patriotic ethic that discourages shipping jobs overseas.

To what extent these circumstances will boost manufacturing has yet to be seen, but it’s worth tracking if you’re thinking of a career in goods production. Speaking of manufacturing careers they are more varied than many may think. Of course we think of machinists and production technicians, and the like, but there are more careers in this sector than those involved in operating machines. Jobs requiring managing and developing personnel should continue to thrive. It’s also worth noting The McKinsey Global Institute pointing out that approximately 1/5 of every dollar of product output is in professional services ranging from engineering to marketing to transportation to office administration. When manufacturing expands, so do these supportive careers.

Another class of careers to consider are those in manufacturing that have yet to be invented. Let me explain. We know that jobs heavy in routine procedures performed in predictable environments are at risk for automation. We also know the manufacturing tasks that are technically feasible for automation is a moving target depending on the state of robotics and artificial intelligence, which together are exceptionally dynamic. The work in this sector that is for now relatively safe from automation involves jobs providing innovative ways of improving production and jobs that increase the collaborative engagement between humans and machines. Tasks that are enhanced by creative and productive partnerships between people free to be inventive who direct their robotics to handle the relatively rote work is where much of the future of manufacturing could be.

To be clear a vibrant manufacturing sector is needed to employ many who feel left out of the globalized and technical economy, but is not our grandfather’s manufacturing that is returning. So yes, let’s be both bullish and prepared for the manufacturing careers of the future.


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The Challenge of Working Class Employment

The recent presidential election has put the demands and anger of the working class front and center in America’s attention. The economic and cultural influences brought on by encroaching globalization and automation are changing employment—and by extension many people’s lives—in ways that are deeply unsettling and unpredictable.

The short-term fix appears to be an electorate choosing a new president who has a penchant for, shall we say, over promising what he can do about the situation. If these promises are combined with under delivering in the creation of jobs for this cohort over the next few years, then we’ll likely be playing out another struggle for what, if anything, the government can do about employment during the 2020 election.

I hesitate to look to the professional class for solutions to the employment and lifestyle anxiety being felt by the working class. Ultimately this group needs leadership to help them assess and adapt to the new world order that is increasingly being driven by globalization and automation. Neither political party adequately provided the needed tough love leadership and straight talk to the working class. We heard plenty about nostalgia for the good old days or that the real problem was due to hoarding by the rich, but when did anyone acknowledge that world markets are moving toward knowledge-based economies that call for fundamental changes in the way workers plan for employment? Unfortunately we never heard it.

We are witnessing large-scale worker displacement. I for one don’t see an end in sight. So when contemplating the best course of action for those who have chosen to curtail their education at the high school level and work in traditional industries it is really difficult to see a quick and easy fix. To say everyone should go to college is over-simplistic or that we should reverse the march of time is unrealistic. This country has a serious problem on its hands and if nothing else the presidential election of 2016 has given us substance for a serious debate about where we go from here.

One thing is clear—employment will continue to go to those with skills and expertise that are marketable. Increasingly these jobs will be technical and specialized and require considerable education and training. However not everyone is going to be driven to be a maven in some area. It still should be okay that some people just want a half-way decent job with reasonable compensation and aren’t looking to set the world on fire with their careers. The question becomes how should an individual with limited education and a strong desire to work in a traditional or straightforward job plan for their future?

I was recently drawn to the November 2016 New Hampshire Economic Conditions issue published by the state’s Employment Security department’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau. Their feature story looks at both “Specialized” and “Baseline” skills most in demand in New Hampshire’s labor markets as derived from an analysis of online job postings. What struck me when reading this report is that it is a window, albeit a small one, into one way of measuring what employer’s want, in other words what is marketable. And given the context of this piece it is the baseline skills I’m most interested in, since as the qualifier suggests these are skills that don’t require a lot of education.

The most frequently listed baseline skills were communication, writing, multi-tasking, time management, detail orientation, planning, and being organized. Nothing too earth- shattering here, but these are the kinds of things someone can do that are desired in the workplace and don’t require sophisticated preparation. Perhaps identifying the basic old-school abilities is where the working class should look to begin or restore their marketability in an uncertain world.

Let’s keep this conversation going. The people showed they are willing to overlook a lot of things in a new president in order to be heard. So what should they be hearing?



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Workforce Shortages and Your Career

I guess it’s a sign of improvement when a new problem can be seen as less egregious than a previously harder to solve problem. For much of the past 8 years we have concerned ourselves with getting people back to work—any work. To a large extent that has happened. Unemployment rates and the number of workers who can say they have a job are back to pre-recession levels. So now we have the “luxury” of concentrating on a replacement problem.  That is the issue of workforce and labor shortages.

U.S. employers are struggling to find qualified workers in a number of fields, resulting in business expansion difficulties and by extension national economic constraints. It doesn’t sound as bad as the employment bounce-back the recession threw at us and it shouldn’t be. However if left unsolved it could become another factor reducing our global competitiveness and economic growth spurring calls for talent immigration, automation, and offshoring.

At an individual level the college student trying to select a major, the college graduate attempting to launch a career, the established professional looking to make a career transition, and the entrepreneur seeking lucrative opportunities are among those who may benefit from an analysis of where the workforce shortages currently exist and where employment projections are anticipated. Although such knowledge and considerations are not necessarily paramount determiners of one’s career development they are worth investigating to see if an alignment exists between these trends and one’s enduring or potential value proposition.

There are several reasons for the decline of qualified workers with demographics being the big one. The aging of Baby Boomers is naturally leading to more retirements and domestically there aren’t enough replacements. Ten years ago 400,000 workers per year retired. That number has risen to 1.2 million today. And the older population creates increased demand in fields such as healthcare where more workers are needed than in the past. For example physical therapists, occupational therapists, and even doctors are already in short supply and are still expected to be in the future.

However it isn’t just in healthcare where shortages exist. To be honest it does not appear that labor deficits are confined to just several industries but rather that it is a more widespread phenomenon. Even declining industries, such as manufacturing are experiencing acute scarcities. Of course not having enough workers trained with specific skills sets compounds the problem, but largely it is coming down to some basic math. Our bench is not populated enough to fill the number of vacating positions.

This should be good news for working-aged people. It suggests there could potentially be many fields and openings to pick from. Other benefits over time should include rising wages and continuously improving working conditions to retain talent.

To best position yourself to take advantage of this general opportunity some other trend lines should be considered. The Bureau of Labor Statistics foresees service sector jobs capturing 95% of newly created positions between now and 2024. Healthcare as mentioned above and social assistance jobs together will become the largest area of employment, surpassing government and business services jobs.

Technical occupations will also grow in number and demand looking forward. Automation will eliminate some jobs to be sure, but more likely is that technology will transform jobs that still need a person involved. The energy, transportation, and data analysis sectors are among those in need of technically trained people who can interact with and leverage technology productively.

I don’t want to treat too lightly the menace workforce shortages can have economically and socially. It is a serious issue, especially for some businesses poised to grow, but compared to the recessionary years I see more opportunity than threat here for the existing workforce and new entries to it to ensure they are selecting careers that can be their best fit.



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Being What You Were Meant To Be

In general career competitiveness is likely to get, well, more competitive in the coming years. There are a number of factors indicating that to secure and retain a truly meaningful and satisfying career each of us will need to manage stiffer headwinds. We may not be able to change the wind velocity or direction, but we can adjust our sails.

What headwinds am I referring to? Well as anyone who has read my pieces before knows the two principal factors impacting the future of work in New Hampshire and around the world are globalization and automation. These alone are introducing a host of competitive actors, both living and non-living. Being able to offer more employment value than other people around the planet and machines who are getting better at reproducing routine and now even sophisticated tasks makes for a tough challenge.

Beyond the gales emanating from an increasingly integrated and technology-based economy are those of our own making. We all have a tendency to make unforced errors that result in establishing the right career more difficult. These are the impediments we throw in front of ourselves that come from flawed thinking and behavior patterns residing deep in our psyches. And with career competition expanding due to forces beyond our control let’s at least agree it is wise to confront the missteps we tend to cause ourselves.

Who among us can’t identify imperfect responses of our own making, many of which are based in the way we make decisions? Perhaps we are too impatient and restless wanting quick resolutions to problems and clarity to uncertainty before the best course of action has been adequately determined. Stress also affects the way we decide and it usually does so in a way that quickly mitigates the stress at the expense of a better longer term outcome. Any actions that take us away from a carefully planned and systematic approach to making the big decisions in our lives, such as choosing and setting course for a career, will weaken our competitiveness.

Decision making can be thought of as a process with sequential steps to be followed. It begins with clearly identifying the decision to be made, then to gathering necessary information, spotting alternatives, assessing evidence,  selecting options, taking action, and reviewing the chosen conclusion. Doing this well requires discipline and strength of mind, but the higher quality decision making that can emerge better positions us for career competition we will face.

The practice of reflection also can play a powerful role in navigating through uncharted waters. The Benedictine nun, author, and speaker Joan Chittister is quoted as saying “Find the thing that stirs your heart and make room for it. Life is about the development of self to the point of unbridled joy.”  The same can be said about our careers. As we reflect on what matters most to us, what jobs need to be done in the world, and how we can best merge the two we find our career choice and the way to realizing it more apparent.

The signs of how we should work have always been there. They began in childhood and have followed us through maturity. How we perceive and become aware of things, people, events, and ideas followed by the conclusions we make about these phenomena shape who we become as people and as career professionals. The interests we cultivate, the values we hold dear, the motivations that propel us, and the skills we develop lead to a unique set of criteria that form the foundation of our value proposition. In other words they make us competitive. Reflect on what that is for you.

We can look ahead and fear the storm clouds or we can accept the adverse winds as a call to action to improve our competitiveness and to be the professionals we were meant to be.

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What Valuable Career Has Yet To Be Established?

In the career space it is becoming increasingly certain that the future of careers is increasingly uncertain. The headwinds of change are strengthening and what in traditional employment has looked stable is now looking unstable. There are a variety of economic and social shifts ushering in this climate of modification and adjustment, influenced largely by globalization, technology, and changing demographics with the trends looking irreversible. Given that significant change has a way of making people nervous and anxious it could seem that the future may be something to fear. But what if we were to reframe this phenomenon as an opportunity? It can be done.

Viewing undetermined career variations favorably begins with asking the question, “What valuable career(s) has/have yet to be established?” To begin answering the question let’s pass through the portal allowing us to view the world’s many challenges. There is certainly no shortage of problems in need of resolutions. The demands are countless and the need for bold, positive, and progressive actions, leading to widespread beneficial advances is urgent. So where do we begin? Following are my picks for top categories where future talent can best direct their energies—in ways about which we can only today dream.

Poverty: The most egregious plight continuing to poison humankind is the plague of poverty. It burdens us all economically, in terms of security, and of course morally. Must we continue to accept that so many of the planet’s people struggle to live healthy lives of happiness and fulfillment?

Economics: If there is one thing we learned from the recent recession it is that our economic health is far from secure. Expertise in the financial industry and among the monetary decision makers is required to maintain a fiscal model free of the wild and dangerous speculative swings that can so devastate Main Street.

Healthcare: Preventing and treating disease, promoting wellness, and leveraging recent breakthroughs in science and medicine contribute immeasurably to the number of career opportunities. Projections are that Healthcare will see very strong growth. Many lives are just waiting to be enhanced and heightened.

Environment: Managing a growing global population that demands more use of finite resources and higher living standards is our collective reality for the foreseeable future. There will be no shortage of creative solutions to be discovered assisting the planet in supporting the burgeoning masses.

Business Services: Aiding business to provide the necessary and desired goods and services, which will elevate and sustain enjoyable and productive lives remains important. Profitable and rewarding models and techniques are still in need of detection and development.

Lifestyle: Crafting the zeitgeist of new eras will be in the hands and minds of those involved in the arts, fashion, music, literature, and culture as they seek novel ways of expressing the times. Creative facility is waiting to be unleashed to communicate the spirit and meaning of ages yet to come.

I could go on. Energy, International Relations, Social Work, and many other fields hold promise as areas for future career development. Societies yearn for original and fresh approaches to improve and better the world. All of us, young and old, have the capacity to meet this demand.

We owe it to ourselves to nurture and expand an entrepreneurial mindset, leading to innovative problem solving and wealth creation. Let’s train and orient our youth in particular to be entrepreneurial success stories and not merely laborers practicing routine procedures. Discovering concepts new, untried, and effective should be encouraged as much if not more than reproducing commodities. Permit and reassure our students and children to take reasonable risk, collaborate with like-minded entrepreneurs, and apply intelligence in peculiar and offbeat ways.

It can be exciting and energizing to think that original and valuable careers are waiting to be spawned. It gives us hope.





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